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Master of Myth: What Arne Duncan Says and Does | Ecology of Education

Master of Myth: What Arne Duncan Says and Does

Master of Myth: What Arne Duncan Says and Does

The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.

—John F. Kennedy

U.S. Secretary of Education has been called the most powerful education secretary in history. With billions of dollars of borrowed money, Duncan has achieved unprecedented changes to American education. “We’re getting more change in 18 months in education than in the previous decade,” said Duncan on a recent trip.

The changes he has been championing, mostly represented by the Race to the Top grant program, are controversial, to say the least. As a Christian Science Monitor article writes:

Ultimately, proponents from all across the political spectrum say, Duncan could help dramatically narrow achievement gaps and even bring the United States back to high standing internationally. Or, as critics such as the irked teachers’ unions see it, he’ll further devastate an already demoralized teaching profession and subject children to more of the high-stakes testing that’s been sucking the soul out of American schools.

But what is surprising is that he has not met many critics during his meetings with the people who should be most critical of him—teachers and students. Recently Duncan was on a bus tour of schools across the nation to “honor the nation’s teachers.” I had expected that many teachers would file complaints about the increasingly poisonous teaching environment imposed by the federal government. I also had expected students to question the excessive burden of testing. But according to a New York Times story:  “Mr. Duncan heard little criticism in the Northeast states he visited.”

Did I miss something here? How is this possible? What happened to all the criticism?

I found the answer in yesterday’s Talk of the Nation hosted by Neal Conan on NPR.

During this one-hour call-in radio program, Duncan took questions from students and teachers in the Washington DC area in the studio and a few callers from around the country. Out of all the questions asked, only one gets close to criticism: “When are we going to start learning how to think and not just how to pass a standardized test?” To which Duncan answered: “It got to happen yesterday.”

That’s the moment of epiphany: Secretary Arne Duncan is a master and all criticism melts away before this great master, master of myth because all critics are told what they want to hear.

If “[I]it got to happen yesterday,” why is he working so hard to push using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and schools, which has been shown to lead to teaching to the test and narrowing of curriculum?

Using a similar strategy, he “won over” a career and technical education teacher who complained the profession is undervalued, according to a Washington Post story. Duncan’s answer: “We have to think about how to reverse that.”

If he values and will truly think about career and technical education, why does he want to pay only math and science teachers more and why his Race to the Top program rewards only STEM and English language arts?

Duncan has been promoting the myth that he respects teachers, values a well-rounded education, and respects diversity and use the myth to hide the truth that all he promotes is more testing, more standards, narrower curriculum, and his lack of faith in public schools and educators.

More of examples of Duncan’s myth promotion record:

Duncan: And the biggest thing is, we have to give everyone of you a well rounded education. So reading and math, English and math are hugely important, but so is science, so is social studies, so is foreign languages, so is financial literacy, so is environmental literacy. We have to get back to a well rounded curriculum. (NPR Talk of the Nation)

Question: how much money has he and the federal government invested in subjects other than English and STEM?

Duncan: Today in our country, 99 percent of our teachers are above average. (New York Times story)

Question: If so, why do we need such drastic, expensive, and unproven measures such as tie teacher evaluation to student test scores to deal with the 1% of below-average teachers? I have to believe he does not believe his Lake Wobegon inspired statement himself.

Duncan: And one thing I’m always conscious of is that the best ideas in education are always going to come at the local level, never from me, never from Washington. (NPR Talk of the Nation)

Question: If the best ideas never come from him, never from Washington, why has he been dangling money to lure the states to change laws to allow more charter schools, accept national standards, develop common assessments, and base teacher evaluation to test scores?

Secretary Duncan has also been promoting the myth about how bad American education is.

Duncan: A quarter of our students never graduate high school. Many of those who do either don’t enroll in college or fail to earn a degree. (Duncan speech in Little Rock)

Question: Why does the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) say “the status dropout rate declined from 14 percent in 1980 to 8 percent in 2008?” “The status dropout rate represents the percentage of 16- through 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential (either a diploma or an equivalency credential such as a General Educational Development [GED] certificate).”

Duncan: In just one generation we have fallen from first in the world to 12th in the percentage of young adults with college degrees. (Duncan speech in Little Rock)

Question: Where is the evidence? I gather Secretary Duncan was relying on a report by the College Board. According to the report, however, the U.S. ranked 4th, NOT first in the percentage of 55- to 64-Year-Olds with an Associate Degree or higher after Russia, Israel, and Canada and the percentage of 25- to 34-Year-Olds with an Associate degree or higher ranks 12th, but the 4 countries immediately above the U.S. (Israel, France, Belgium, and Canada) are about 1% better.

This post was originally published on Yong Zhao’s education blog, Zhao Learning.

Image: Wall Street Journal

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Author:Yong Zhao

Yong Zhao is University Distinguished Professor at the College of Education, Michigan State University, where he also serves as the founding director of the Center for Teaching and Technology, executive director of the Confucius Institute, as well as the US-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence. He is a fellow of the International Academy for Education. His research interests include computer gaming and education, diffusion of innovations, teacher adoption of technology, computer-assisted language learning, and globalization and education.
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